the Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith
When the smog lifted -- especially, it seemed, on Sundays when automobile traffic was light -- you could rediscover Washington the beautiful. The white office buildings leapt out from the brilliant blue backdrop of the sky. If it was springtime, tens of thousands of tulips planted by the National Park Service provided a pointillist ground cover to downtown squares and circles. Along Rock Creek Parkway, daffodils proclaimed the beginning of Washington's favorite season. The city lived for spring and fall, periods separated by muggy summer and by an unpredictable yet dull winter. In the fall, the gauze of noxious gas that stretched over DC all summer was peeled away, permitting the sun a rare chance to lounge unimpeded against the sides of buildings or ricochet off spires. The air conditioner's monotone was finally silenced and the hint of chill repulsed by a friendly jacket. But the spring was even better; you quickly forgot the snow that didn't come, or that did come but all in one blizzard, and you luxuriated in a few months of unadulterated color and life. Summer was awful and in winter it was best to heed the words of Mark Twain:
Would that all critiques of the city had been as valid. No other American city had so much written and spoken about it by people who had no organic connection with it and who expended so little effort on its behalf. From presidents to Time reporters, the city was what they wished (or had time) to see, and the resulting reporting veered from descriptions of a Grossinger's for megalomaniacs to a Tolkien-like netherworld inhabited by orcs, goblins, brigands and things that go bump in the night and take all your money. The Washingtonian found few friends among those who passed through. Jack Kennedy called it a place of 'northern charm and southern efficiency.' Senate District Committee chairman Thomas Eagleton responded to a complaint that a proposed home rule bill would leave Congress with a veto over all local actions by saying, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Congressmen with impeccable liberal credentials curried favor with their conservative constituents and financial backers by supporting freeways, developers and 'law and order' schemes for the District. Such were our friends.
Then there was the legion of race-baiters, demagogues, and legislators using the District to make deals, political and business, that would have been a scandal if they had occurred in their home districts, and others who used their power over the city to make sure they got cheap liquor and cheap taxi rides.
The denigration of Washington as a place followed other paths as well. Washingtonians, told that their town was a federal city, grew up believing that this somehow prohibited the District from seeking political equality or even other sources of income such as a commuter tax. Washingtonians were taught to rely on the national government until they had lost much of their will for self-initiative. One of the hardest problems faced by anyone seeking change in Washington was what became known as the colonial mentality, a fatalistic acceptance of powerlessness in political and social life.
Washington was a city of dichotomies, contrasts, and striking inequalities. It was the capital of a major democracy that lacked local democracy. It was a citadel of power whose residents lacked power. It was a city with an excess of multimillion dollar office buildings and a shortage of housing. It was a city that was wealthier than most in which a sizable minority lives in great poverty. It had a 70 percent black population but the major decisions were still made by whites. It was a city in which the American dream and the American tragedy passed each other on the street and did not speak. It was, finally, a city that had suffered a form of deprivation known primarily to the poor and the imprisoned, a psychological deprivation born of the constant suppression and denial of one's identity, worth, or purpose by those in control. Washington to those in power was not a place but a hall to rent. The people of Washington were the custodian staff. And the renters were as likely to visit the world in which this staff lived as a parishioner is to inspect the boiler room of the church. The purpose of Washington's community was to serve not to be. Its school children were not taught the history of their city; they were told little of its significant men and women. There was no city festival or parade. In fact, this repository of national history didn't even have a local history museum. The city's present was suppressed, its future was a hostage, and its past was ignored.
This was the city that civil rights activists and other reformers determined to - and did - change. This change was cultural as well as political and increasingly the old ways and the new found themselves in conflict. For example, having discovered that there were more African-American books in the libraries in the white parts of town than in the black city, I decided I better check out the meetings of the library board of trustees. There I found not only an all-white board but a chair in his 90s serving his colleagues tea and cookies.
Leaders of a reform movement at the Edmunds-Peabody Elementary School parent body also ran up against the old ways at a meeting so heated and controversial that the citywide PTA sent its president and two vice presidents to serve as monitors. The organization's vice president, Bessie Turner, repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with instructions such as "Madame Chairman, the names of the nominated slate must be on the left hand side of the board." During a break, I attempted to engage the formidable Turner in conversation. She told me, "I'm not interested in reporters. I defy you to write anything I don't want in."
In the end, Ted Jones won the heated election for president by a vote of 28 to 26. Mrs. Turner called the new officers forward. Ramrod straight, she read from the PTA's encomium to itself as contained in its manual and instructed the audience to rise as she recited the "objects" of the organization. Asked whether they intended to help the new officers attend to their duties, the parents obediently responded, "I do." Mrs. Turner then told the officers that "I sincerely hope you will follow your manual. If you follow its provisions you will not get into any difficulty." She handed Jones his gavel but said he couldn't have the official PTA president's pin because he wasn't a woman and that the pin would be held in escrow until the election of the next woman president. And she promised to send all the new officers their own manual.
It could be funny and it could be maddening. In 1967 I expressed my frustration in a piece for a local paper written as a letter to a friend moving into my neighborhood:
Yet there was another side I attempted to describe in an article I wrote in the 1980s:
The issues the Gazette covered and the causes it pressed ran the gamut. We campaigned for the then novel idea of packer sanitation trucks to replace the high sided open trash trucks. And we warned readers not put dog and cat dirt in their trash cans, quoting a trashman as saying, "How would you like to stand up in that truck in that stuff all day?'
We also quickly became a leading voice of the anti-freeway movement, and a precocious supporter of light rail and bikeways years before such phenomena became popular. Kathy would later recall going to an anti-freeway meeting and being astounded that we thought we were actually going to stop a highway. In fact, we didn't stop the one we were fighting; it sliced through Southeast Washington, dividing public housing from the rest of the community. The Gazette ran a photo two young boys looking wistfully up at "Southeast's Berlin Wall." But before it was all over, people like us all over DC had stopped hundreds of lane-miles that would have made the city look like an east-coast Los Angeles.
There was always something to save - such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park - and something to promote -- such as a new swimming pool - and something to cover - such as activists Janie Boyd and Marguerite Kelly, who were taking on the local supermarket chains. They challenged quality disparities between outlets in different parts of town and campaigned for the open dating of meat. Meat at that time was dated with a code known only to supermarket employees. The Gazette took the bold position that "an understandable date on each package of meat would be of considerable value to the shopper," noting that "we have shared with other consumers the experience of having meat go bad soon after it has been brought home and put in the refrigerator."
The consumer activists also went comparison shopping, coming up with prices at inner city Safeways up to a third higher than those in a white section of town. Further they demonstrated that prices were hiked when welfare checks came out.
During congressional hearings, Rep. Henry Reuss double-checked the figures at lunch time, returning to the hearing room with bags of groceries that he placed on the podium. When a Safeway official blamed some of the price differences on human error, Reuss responded, "In an hour and half I found quite bit of human error."
We also ran a feature on Jane Hardin who had opened a combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Ave., where on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up the pipes. And we wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, "There's trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing." Fulwood would eventually become the city's chief of police.
But things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, "intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning."
In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black.
Among our purposes:
In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:
On March 6, I wrote a prospective member
In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:
That same month, the US Court of Appeals ordered the city to halt construction on four major sections of the city's freeway system. For a change, it looked as if we might be winning.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor's house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.
The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office a few blocks away to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn't have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.
There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.
We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.
At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn't in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.
That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.
For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.
I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.
WASHINGTONIANA DIV DC PUBLIC LIBRARY
PHOTO BY SAM SMITH
The strange ambivalence of the riots -- the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple's home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation -- made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn't, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attributed this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren't worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.
Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.
Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasé. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, "Isn't that a Communist paper?"
"Oh no," Len replied cheerfully. "The editor's a communist but the paper isn't."
THE EMPORIUM, OWNED BY LEN KIRSTEN (IN BLACK HAT)
On the other hand, Lee, of Helen & Lee's Chinese carryout was totally indifferent to politics. Lee and his wife ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich -- the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read: & Lee's Carryout.
Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of Spack's Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also "the world's smallest bar" -- a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.
"Now someday this place is going to have class," Spack told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. "You know -- cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance," he said as he reached for an object under the counter, "this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?"
The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street. I wrote:
During the riots, Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that "you can replace material goods, but you can't replace human beings." Hoover then said, "Well, this conversation is over." Replied Washington, "That's all right, I was leaving anyway."
One white businessman, Milton Hoffman of Art Young's clothing store, which had been burned in the riot, proposed a one percent of gross sales contribution by businesses to be used for community projects. Black businesses posted large "soul brother" signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop's clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.
At the time of the riot early 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.
Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.
SAM SMITH PHOTO
The riots weren't the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn't really return for decades. A real estate dealer's home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.
The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity. There was no work for a white editor in a black neighborhood anymore. If I was to talk to anyone now, they would have look a lot more like me.
To be sure, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats was elected in early May as convention delegates and central committee members. The slate included both Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy supporters, united in a desire to defeat the locally popular Hubert Humphrey. I won one of McCarthy's slots on the party central committee. McCarthy had stated that he wanted no part of a coalition but some of his supporters, including myself, disagreed and so worked out a deal. A few days before the riot, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons -- a community organizer, a minister , a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself -- were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthyites from around the city.
It was an unprecedented relinquishment of political power to mere party members and it produced an unusual slate that included community organizers and college professors, mothers on welfare and lawyers, black militants and a white philanthropist. Possibly no slate in America has ever been so varied.
The slate also included Sophie Reuther, wife of Victor Reuther. A former union organizer, she had once jumped out of a second story window to escape armed KKKers who had been set upon the union at the urging of management. Recalled Victor later, "She went underground and it took me three days to find her." It was not a singular incident. On Sophie's 25th birthday, her party had been interrupted by two gun-wielding company thugs who forced their way in and began pistol-whipping Walter Reuther, her brother-in-law.
Our campaign was short, lasting about month and for some of us election day began to close rapidly before we had any notion of what we were supposed to be doing. Typical of our appearances was a "debate on Vietnam" before a group of 12 persons. Since my opponent was also opposed to the war, our confrontation was rather turgid. We were preceded by a couple of 14th Precinct cops who promised to get an abandoned car towed away and to take action on other matters less cosmic than withdrawal from Southeast Asia. I was glad the policemen were not running for office. Still we knew we had support. A poll taken by a community group found that 44% already favored an end to the war's escalation and to the bombing of North Vietnam.
I was second from the end of the ballot which hardly boded well for my political career. I contemplated the slogan, "Roses are red, violets are blue; you'll find me listed at the end of page 2." Another more Stevensonian phrase briefly crossed my mind: "Vote for the penultimate candidate." I eventually settled on a flyer which proclaimed that "The District's Friend is Second from the End," which was never circulated because a fellow candidate pointed out that it violated a cardinal political rule against "single-shooting" on a slate.
Another political lesson came from a friend who upbraided me for having passively accepted my full name on the ballot. He said I should have gone immediately into court. The publicity alone would have been worth 1,000 votes.
Eventually I did most of what a good candidate should. Kathy and I even participated in one and a half parades. We didn't quite make through the second one owing to our VW's weak battery.
On election day I stood outside my precinct distributing sample ballots. The Humphrey people were there too, but our main competition came from a man who accosted as many voters as he could and read them a two-page polemic against the police department for having stolen his watch three years earlier.
Inside my wife served as a Kennedy poll watcher in what was DC's second election after a century of a full colonialism. Early in the morning the precinct election official had hung some political posters to decorate the drab voting area. Kathy indicated that the posters were nice but illegal. She also met a lady whose name she could not find on the voter list and who told her, "Oh, you won't find me. I'm just here from Philadelphia visiting my aunt and I thought I'd come by." Kathy thanked her and suggested that her vote might better be cast in Philadelphia.
Late in the afternoon, I moved to a corner with my card file of known favorable voters who had yet to cast a ballot, dispatching a small squadron of volunteer kids to remind them. We won and the next day, the Evening Star offered this editorial comment on the new Democratic Central Committee:
With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start.
Then, one month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, completing the hat trick of evil begun four years earlier with the killing of his brother, followed by the slaying of Martin Luther King. While the other deaths may have been more tragic to more people, in one respect RFK's was the most profound, for it appeared to shut the door on hope. What had been with his brother a grim anomaly had turned into a grisly habit. I wrote about it on June 7, 1968, two days after Kennedy was shot. He had died a day later:
In September I wrote:
About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America. I wrote:
Later I would explain it by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn't really funny. And it still hurts.
Copyright 1997 Sam Smith